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At the heart of the practice of Nia is the principle of awareness. We pay close attention, we invest ourselves in witnessing how we do what we do so we can make conscious choices rather than be carried along by habit.

It is a powerful practice that has served me well for nearly two decades.

I have always thought of awareness and the witness as being objective, non-judging, almost clinical. This is important for seeing things as they are.

But last weekend, at a Mindful Self Compassion workshop with Laura DeVault and Sharon Beckman Brinley, they introduced the idea of Affectionate Awareness. What if I observe myself with both objectivity and kindness? What if I see what is so with tenderness? As if I was observing a close friend or a child? 

Take a moment and think of a time that a friend came to you with a difficulty and they were suffering in some way. Think about how you spoke to them, what tone you used, what your posture was. Then think of a time that you were struggling or that you messed up or failed in some way. How did you speak to yourself?

Imagine for a moment, saying what you say to yourself to your friend. The thought of that took my breath away.

The practice of Mindful Self Compassion is based on the work and research of Kristin Neff and it is full of eye-opening and heart-opening practices. And if you, like me, thought that it all sounds like unicorns and rainbows and that there is really important work that needs doing and other people are suffering more than you are and you don’t deserve this kind of work, think again. MSC is a courageous choice to feel your suffering and others’. It can shift not only your relationship with yourself and those around you, but can shift the discord in our communities and the world.

Learn more about Dr. Neff’s work and the practices that can support you whenever you need them in this Google Talk and her TEDx Talk. Her book on Mindful Self Compassion is here.

Breathe deep and offer yourself some Affectionate Awareness.

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allowing new years ball“I find surcease from the entanglement of questions only when I concede that I am not obliged to know everything. In a world where many desperately seek to know all the answers, it is not very popular to believe, and then state, I do not need to know all things.” ~ Maya Angelou from Death and The Legacy

2014 has been a rough one. In my own little circle, my community, my country, there have been an unrelenting series of injuries and illnesses, injustices and tragedies, unexpected heartbreaking deaths. I’m not a fan of New Years parties but this year, that Times Square ball cannot drop fast enough for me.

To be more precise, my mind can’t wait for ball to drop. My mind reels after a year of frightening diagnoses and uncertain treatment plans. My mind staggers after so many distressing phone calls and emails and Facebook posts. My mind wants to understand why these things happen and what it all means. My mind wants to know.

My mind hates the mystery of living.

This week has been a particularly painful one. (As a friend said last week, just when we thought we were through it, 2014 saved the worst for last.) When every fiber of me feels raw and aching, my mind can sincerely kick into overdrive. Difficult circumstances stir up long-buried stories and emotional patterns from lifetimes ago. I hear words in my head like “you don’t deserve to feel this way” and “you’re going to do something wrong and make everything worse” and “you should be able to do this without help.”

Luckily, my wounded mind is housed within my wise body. When my mind is resisting the unfathomable and kicking up defended story lines from my childhood, my body is ready to tell me the truth. My body is fine with the mystery. My body tells me how it is.

When things fall apart, thinking only confounds me. From a place of reflexive recoiling, my mind can lash out and give me all kinds of confusing information. It’s much more helpful for me to go to my body: walk, move, dance, do yoga, meditate, or breathe deeply. If I go to my body, I don’t need a story, I don’t have to listen to the chorus of directives in my head, and I don’t have to understand or know anything. I can just feel what is happening.

This week I discovered a guided meditation called Soften Soothe and Allow by Kristin Neff on the Insight Timer meditation app. In it, Dr. Neff approaches difficult or painful emotions somatically by softening, soothing and allowing. First, she guides us to feel the sensation of the emotion in the body and soften into it rather than tightening. When difficult feelings arise, my natural reaction is to tense and pull away. Instead, I can make the choice to turn toward the pain and soften it. Even a little at the edges. Then, she suggests breathing into or touching the body to soothe the painful place. Even a little at the edges.

Finally, she directs to simply allow the sensation to be without pushing it away or masking it or running from it. Imagine that: just allow it.

Everybody responds differently to painful circumstances. There is no right way to be hurt or angry or frightened. There is no right way to grieve. Dr. Neff’s meditation creates space for all experiences. In times like these, it’s a helpful reminder to stay open to suffering, to respond to it with tenderness and to allow it to be. I find that I’m grateful for my life even in troubling and difficult times, grateful for this very moment.

There is no telling, of course, what 2015 holds. My mind sorely wishes for a promise that everything will be okay next year. Luckily, my body is there to integrate the pain with the gratitude, the bitter with the sweet. The integration gives me space to appreciate all my experiences and embrace the mystery of living.

Even so, my mind and I wish you a happy and peaceful new year.

MLK w quote

Even when I want more love, often when faced with hate, anger, or fear, I bring hate, anger, and fear.

Anyone who hurts is hurting.  The dog may bark and seem dangerous, but her leg is in a trap.  Suddenly, we see why she snarls.

Think of that dog when someone hurts you (or YOU hurt you).  When you are harsh, your brain wants you safe.  So ask “What else can I do to keep me safe?”  (Listen to Kristin Neff’s talk in The (FREE) Compassionate Brain series!)

Meet shortcomings or unskillful actions (yours or others’) with love, not hate.

MLK w datesDarkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  — Martin Luther King, Jr.

For a dozen years, I lived and drove in Boston.  The city’s twisting streets, heavy traffic at all hours and impatient, angry drivers are all notorious – and with good reason.  One afternoon, I was driving from Boston into Cambridge with my beloved friend, Joni.  We were going to a new gourmet store to buy something extraordinary (cheese, probably) and I wasn’t sure where I was going.  As I hesitated at an intersection, the car behind me honked hard and insistent.  I immediately felt embarrassed and upset.  I continued on and another car nudged out of a parking space hoping to merge into the flow of traffic.  I honked nastily to keep her back.  Joni laughed and looked at me, “What are you doing, silly?” she said.  “You just honked at her because somebody else honked at you.”

It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  If there is a dark place that we want to be lighter, we bring light to it, not more darkness.  And yet when there is hate or anger or fear, so often what we bring is more hate, anger and fear.

We see this everywhere:  in politics, between countries, between siblings, in marriages, and inside ourselves.  One side is angry or hateful and the other side pushes back with more of the same.  It’s an ancient response from our threat/defense system and ultimately, it doesn’t serve us.

Anyone who hurts is hurting.  Over and over, I’m struck by the truth of this.  If someone hurts you, it is because they, themselves are hurting.  Tara Brach, psychologist and Buddhist teacher, uses the image of coming upon a snarling, snapping, growling dog.  Our first reaction is to pull away, thinking this is a wild and dangerous creature.  Upon looking closer, however, we see that the dog’s leg is caught in a trap.  Suddenly, our response changes entirely to one of compassion, care, and a desire to relieve the poor creature’s suffering.

The next time someone honks at you in traffic, or speaks to you harshly, or even guns down dozens of elementary school students, think of the dog in the trap.  This perspective doesn’t make the hurtful, hateful actions right, but it gives us an understanding that is far more skillful than hating them back.

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”― Gandhi

The place to start, of course, is where you are.  In your own skin.  In your own head.  I know that I spend a startlingly large amount of time each day judging, criticizing and chastising myself within the confines of my own noggin.  How could I miss that appointment?  Why did I say that thoughtless thing?  Why did I have to eat all of Kate’s chia seed cookies?  In some way, I think that if I stay on myself, keep the bar high, keep cracking the whip, then I’ll get better, be kinder, act smarter.  But imagine a close friend or a beloved child committing the same infraction.  Imagine them missing the appointment or eating the cookies.  What would you say to them?  Do you really think that harshness will beget happiness, or that relentless criticism will lead to love?

There is neuroscience that explains both our tendency to be hyper-self-critical and why self-compassion works to ease the suffering.  I notice something about myself that I don’t like (it could be anything from the shape of my thighs to the way I spoke to my teenager) and I react with anger or fear that awakens our threat/defense system.  The amygdala, in an effort to keep me safe, fires and shifts me into the lower, limbic brain to attack the threat.  The problem is that the threat is me!  So a more skillful approach is to ask “What can I do other than being harsh and critical to keep me safe?”  (Rick Hanson led an amazing series of talks last fall called The Compassionate Brain.  The sixth talk in the series was with Dr. Kristin Neff who is an expert in self-compassion.  She talks brilliantly about this phenomenon and how we can address it skillfully.  The series is free and I recommend it highly.)

This week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we will play with moving with kindness and compassion.  This is an internal, personal practice that I can feel in my body.  When my eyes are soft and my hands are receptive, it is a way of being kinder to myself.  When I meet my shortcomings or unskillful actions with the recognition that I’m hurting in some way, I can recognize that I need love, not hate.  Only light can drive out darkness.  Only love can drive out hate.  And we have to start where we are, with ourselves.

May you be safe and well,

Love,

Susan

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